The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Carr Explores the Cultural & Landscape Character of Cape Cod in Distinguished Lecture Series

Ethan Carr, Professor of Landscape ArchitectureEthan Carr, Professor of Landscape Architecture, delivers the Zube Lecture on Thursday, November 21, 2019 / Photo via Yuanfang (Evonne) Gong, Communications & Digital Media Specialist
Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Contrary to how tourists may feel, Ethan Carr, professor of Landscape Architecture, prefers to visit Cape Cod in the winter. The off-season, he argues, is an opportunity to experience the cultural and natural features of the Cape with empty beaches, no traffic, and undisturbed wildlife. But defining what exactly those features are has long been subject to debate, dating back to before the 40-plus miles of shoreline was preserved as a national park in 1961.

On November 21, Carr delivered the UMass Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning’s (LARP) Zube Lecture, an endowed lecture series named for Erv Zube, former head of LARP from 1974 to 1980. Titled “The Greatest Beach: Cape Cod and Land Conservation in the 1960s,” Carr’s lecture analyzed the political, architectural, cultural, and natural history of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

"The Greatest Beach: A History of Cape Cod National Seashore," by Ethan Carr, Professor of Landscape ArchitectureCarr’s lecture was based on his recently published book The Greatest Beach: A History of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Though not the first national seashore in the National Park Service’s portfolio  nor the first national park in Massachusetts the Cape Cod National Seashore was innovative in several ways. It was the first park for which the federal government authorized funding  (they had traditionally only authorized land or received land donations); it was the first park for which people were intentionally left in place within the park’s bounds; it was the first park with a mandate for preserving the character and the way of life of the landscape.

“It’s an intensely local story,” said Carr, ”with national implications.”

Stakeholders would come to rely on the “Cape Cod model” to inform the subsequent development of national parks and seashores. But before such a model even existed as an idea, a multidisciplinary effort was undertaken to define and understand the Cape’s unique characteristics. In other words: what makes the Cape the Cape?

Thoreau and the "Backside of the Cape"

Prior to the 1840s, Cape Cod was an isolated area home largely to remote villagers and fishermen. The population was concentrated on the bayside of the peninsula, where seafarers could safely drop anchor in the protected harbor and also capitalize on the abundant sea life. 

"A man may stand there and put all America behind him."

- Henry David Throeau


The advent of railroads in 1847 initiated a new process of constructing and appreciating the landscape’s character and history. It brought to the dunes Cape Henry David Throeau whose writings would frame the essence of the Cape in a new light.

Thoreau was among the first to widely report on the Cape from a tourist perspective, especially the oft-overlooked oceanside belittled as the “backside of the Cape.” His writings wax romantic about the desolation and sublimity of the landscape; the weatherbeaten nature of the fishermen, oystermen, watermen, mooncussers, and beachcombers; and the perfect place and time to visit: “A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a light-house or a fisherman's hut the true hotel,” wrote Thoreau. “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”

“I agree with him, by the way,” said Carr, eliciting laughs from attendees perhaps skeptical about a visit during a winter storm. “I don’t go there in the summer.”

Thoreau’s words helped establish a sense of Cape Cod character, but infrastructure would become the major agent of change. Extension of rail service to Provincetown and the adoption of the automobile sparked investments in bridges, roads, and buildings. The economy began a  steady shift from commercial fishing and production to tourism. 

In the 1930s and 1940s artists descended in droves on the cape, eager to capture the vanishing lifestyle of the rustic fishermen. They took up residence in traditional cottages, one- to four-room homes built around a central fireplace, an area of roughly 400-square feet. These cottages were relics of the 18th century; creatives, then, began to restore the cottages to make them more comfortable for living.

The Cape Cod Model

The post-war 1950s ushered in an outdoor recreation boom. Development spread up the peninsula to the Outer Cape, inciting worry as to what aspects of Cape Cod character should be preserved and how exactly to preserve it. The National Park Service had floated ideas prior for acquiring land and evicting residents, but this was met with tremendous opposition from locals, cultural icons, and powerful politicians.

Ethan Carr, left, discusses "The Greatest Beach: A History of Cape Cod National Seashore"

By this time, John F. Kennedy was elected Senator of Massachusetts as a Democrat and had spent several decades visiting Hyannisport with his family. He, Republican Senator Leverett Staltonstall, and their respective staffs worked in tandem with the six Outer Cape towns (Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Chatham) to enact local legislation and zoning policies that created districts that would adhere to Department of Interior guidelines. Zoning reform didn’t occur all at once. It wasn’t until 2016 that the town of Truro adopted these measures.

When Kennedy was elected president in 1960 he signed the law creating the national seashore. In doing so he also created the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission, an agency created to provide consultation on park development.

Thus the “Cape Cod model” — built on bipartisanship, community engagement, and a deeply rooted heritage was born. 

The Outer Cape Today

Since the 1970s, the Cape Cod National Seashore has held steady with approximately 45 million visitors annually. To account for such a large influx of tourists, the seashore’s stakeholders had to consider the effects of erosion, outdoor recreation, and public use facilities. 

Ecologists, planners, policymakers, and architects convened to design visitor’s centers and bathhouses using traditional Cape Cod materials and massing. Rules and regulations were set to preserve the dunes and wildlife, while trying to accommodate tourism leisure traditional activities like hunting, surfing, off-roading, and even public nudity, once considered mainstays of cultural character, were reexamined and disposed of. Some cranberry bogs, symbols of New England’s colonial agrarian roots, were sold and left for red maple swamps to be their natural successors.

“It’s an intensely local story,” said Carr, ”with national implications.”


Weather, too, proved a monumental challenge. Not only did the ocean shape and reshape the coast as it does continuously, but major storms like the infamous Blizzard of ‘78 carved away at the dunes and bluffs to send some structures tumbling into the sea. Likewise, every single lighthouse on the Cape has since been moved at least once due to erosion.

The combined efforts by experts from varying disciplines are arguably the greatest legacy of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The park is about more than just sandy beaches and summertime fun. It reflects multimodal approach to placemaking, but also the range of ways the public interprets and celebrates local character.

“It became a model of landscape conservation in places that weren’t Cape Cod,” said Carr. “What would the Outer Cape be today if they hadn’t created [the national seashore]? That’s not complicated. Anyone who’s been to Cape Cod knows it would be a very, very different place.”